After a week in hospital I was moved from a private room to one shared with another patient. A young motorcyclist, recently admitted. He was in pain, groaning constantly. I could empathise of course, but it was distressing to hear someone suffering.
One day I woke to find my mother and Auntie Dot, my dad’s sister, sitting at my bedside. Dot and I were close. She’d lived with us when I was younger, before she married. She was my naughty auntie. A bad influence, in the best possible way. Among other bad habits, she taught me how to burp loudly, how to make fart noises using my arm pits and how to use small pieces of the black paper from a box of chocolates to black out my teeth. When she went on holiday, usually to seaside towns like Scarborough and Bridlington, she would send me a saucy postcard, the rudest she could find.
My mother said they’d been there, at my bedside, chatting for about 20 minutes. Dot told me that, while I’d been asleep, she’d asked my mother a (typically inappropriate) question: ‘has he got a big one?’ ‘I’ve got no idea’ my mother replied, ‘I haven’t seen it for years’. Then, Dot explained, they’d furtively lifted the bed sheet to check out my ‘wedding tackle’.
Of course the conversation between Dot and my mother never happened. And of course they didn’t look under the sheet. This was Dot’s way of lifting us from the gloom. She could be relied upon to make us laugh.
Finally it was explained to me, there was another problem with my right arm. The impact of the collision had damaged the nerves in the shoulder. Hence the lack of sensation and movement. Years later, by way of the internet, I discovered the name of this injury. The network of nerves in the shoulder is called the Brachial Plexus. I had a Brachial Plexus Injury. This is most commonly a result of motorcycle accidents, or oddly in newborn babies. The physical act of being born forcing the arm backwards, tearing the nerves.
The exact nature of the damage, unknown at this stage, would determine the likelihood of recovery. Torn nerves are sometimes able to repair themselves, in a similar way to broken bones. If this hasn’t happened within 5 years of the injury then there is no hope. Alternatively, severed nerves can sometimes be surgically repaired. It would be quite some time before I would find out which of these scenarios applied to me.
I sensed Mr King was not optimistic about the chances of recovery in my arm. He never said this explicitly, it was implied. During a casual conversation about school he said it was ‘good to hear’ I was academically competent. He was ‘pleased’ I was ‘bright’. The subtext was clear and devastating: it was fortunate I was reasonably intelligent because I’d need to find a job that uses my brain. A physical job was not going be an option.
After a few weeks, a routine x-ray showed my broken femur was not correctly aligned. Without intervention, this misalignment could leave me with one leg shorter than the other. I might need to use a walking stick for the rest of my life. Traction wasn’t going to work. I needed surgery to re-fracture the bone, align it correctly, then fix it together with a metal plate and screws.
My body was held together by quite a lot of metalware. Two metal plates in my arm, one on my collarbone and one in my thigh bone. All held in place by some 40 screws.
In hospital my dreams were surreal, often distressing. In a particularly vivid dream, I was trapped beneath many layers of fabric. Like an Egyptian mummy. I clawed at the thick dressings on my leg, tearing them away. When I woke I was frightened and confused. I buzzed the night staff to come and help me, not knowing how to explain what had happened. As the nurse opened the door she put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide. I was sitting up in bed surrounded by mountains of torn cotton wool. The fresh 20 centimetre incision in my thigh was exposed. Blood trickling down from between the stitches. ‘What have you done?!’ she said, walking hurriedly towards me. ‘I don’t know! I’m sorry! I did it in my sleep! I don’t know!’ trying to convince her I hadn’t created this mess intentionally. She set work re-packing the dressing around my leg. A temporary fix to get me through the night. It would be re-dressed properly in the morning.
A smiling Occupational Therapist appeared beside my bed. She introduced herself, then explained she was going to help me to learn how to write using my left hand. This was unexpected. I hadn’t been told I’d been assigned an OT‘ had been assigned to me. I looked at her not knowing what to say.
I’m naturally right handed. Obviously I’d need to learn how to write with my left hand. But this wasn’t a concept I’d had time to digest. The cheery OT produced an A4 notepad and thick felt tip pens. The paper was lined, but it wasn’t regular lined paper. The lines were about 4 cm apart. The kind young children use in the first years of primary school. To get started she said I should write repeated lines of the letters of the alphabet. aaaaaaaaaaaaa, AAAAAAAAAA, bbbbbbbbbb, BBBBBBBBBB, and so on. She would be back tomorrow to see how I’d got on.
This was a patronising, a pointless exercise. I humoured the OT by completing several pages of the alphabet. The next day I informed her that I wouldn’t be doing anymore. ‘I know how to write’ I said. ‘I just need practice’. I did this by writing letters to my friends using regular writing paper. I asked the OT bring me some basket weaving instead, to pass the time. Which she did.
I was a tricky customer for that poor OT. To put this in context though, I’d been utterly helpless for the past few weeks. The medical staff had done everything for me. From washing my face to carrying away my urine. Learning to write with my left hand was something I could take charge of. So I did.
That summer was unusually hot, the third hottest summer in 100 years. With no air conditioning, the ward was sweltering. Patients nearest the windows, in direct sunlight, were particularly uncomfortable. To keep cool, a small number of electric fans were shared among the patients. I was relieved and grateful when my dad’s workmates clubbed together to buy me my own fan (which was eventually left as a donation to the hospital).
The long, hot days were spent listening to BBC Radio 1. Over 30 years later, there are songs that still evoke memories of that stifling hospital room: China Girl (David Bowie), Wherever I Lay My Hat (Paul Young) and, poignantly, Every Breath You Take (The Police).
Trauma of the type I experienced, temporarily shuts down basic bodily functions. I’d been in hospital for 10 days without, to use hospital parlance, a bowel movement. I hadn’t felt the need to go, but I was curious. I leant over to my mother, whispering in her ear ‘Mam, I want to ask you something’. ‘Yeah? What is it Pete?’ she said. ‘Well… I was wondering … how do you have a shit in this place? When you can’t get out of bed?’ I had no experience of hospitals. I genuinely didn’t know. She laughed, then explained the concept of bedpans. How the nurses bring them in a trolley then, after use, dispose of the contents. I was horrified. Surely not. I was 16 years old. Mature in some ways but still with some teenage awkwardness. Easily embarrassed. There was no end to the indignity. I’d been stripped naked, had my body shaved, been catheterised, strung up in traction, cut open, stitched up again – and now I had to buzz the nurses to ask if I could take a shit. Which they would then carry away for me. I was done with this. I wanted out.